The world’s fastest supercomputer will be built in the US by 2021, the US Department of Energy announced today.

The machine, dubbed Frontier, will be built by chip designer AMD and supercomputer manufacturer Cray for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It’s expected to produce more than 1.5 exaflops of processing power, and will be used for a range of tasks, performing advanced calculations in areas like nuclear and climate research.

“Frontier’s record-breaking performance will ensure our country’s ability to lead the world in science that improves the lives and economic prosperity of all Americans and the entire world,” said Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in a press statement. “Frontier will accelerate innovation in AI by giving American researchers world-class data and computing resources to ensure the next great inventions are made in the United States.”

When constructed, Frontier should be the most advanced example of what’s known as “exascale computing.” This is the next-generation of computing capacity, in which processing power is measured in exaflops, or quintillions of calculations per second. A quintillion is a one with a whopping eighteen zeros behind it: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

To give an idea of the scale of this sort of machine, AMD says Frontier will have as much processing power as the next 160 fastest supercomputers combined. It’ll be able to handle an astonishing amount of data, with a bandwidth 24,000,000 times greater than the average home internet connection, capable of processing 100,000 HD movies in a second. It’ll also have a correspondingly huge footprint, taking up 7,300 square feet of space (roughly equivalent to two basketball courts) and containing 90 miles of cabling.


The world’s current fastest supercomputer is Summit, also housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Photo by Micah Singleton / The Verge

Frontier isn’t the only exascale computer the US is currently building either. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy announced a similar project: the supercomputer Aurora, which is being constructed by Intel and Cray at Argonne National Laboratory. Aurora will likely be the first exascale supercomputer in the US, but Frontier will have greater processing power.

These machines don’t necessarily mean the US is the world’s greater computing power, though. China is expected to have its own exascale supercomputer up and running by 2020 — a year ahead of America. China is also the world’s leader in terms of supercomputer volume, and is currently home to 227 of the world’s fastest computers (compared to just 109 operated by the US). Japan and the European Union are the other main contenders.

The news is a particularly big deal for AMD, says Patrick Moorhead, semiconductor analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. The contract is worth $600 million and Frontier will use scores of AMD’s EPYC CPUs, each connected to four of the company’s Radeon Instinct GPUs.

The world of supercomputer chips is mostly in the hands of Intel, and AMD hasn’t supplied the processors for the world’s fastest supercomputer since 2012, when AMD Opteron CPUs were used to push ORNL’s Titan computer to a benchmark of 17.59 petaflops per second.

Moorhead told The Verge that the Department of Energy likely chose AMD for a number of reasons, including the performance of its processors, and its recent successes designing semi-custom silicon for Microsoft and Sony. “This bodes well for AMD’s future as this is technology that should be in the mainstream market after 2021,” said Moorhead.



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